As Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish celebrates the 86th Fiesta Mexicana this week in Topeka, I cannot help but think of the controversy surrounding the recent tweet by President Trump suggesting certain members of Congress return home to their countries of origin, despite the fact that all of these legislators are American citizens.
Yes, we are all immigrants, a perspective that it would behoove members of Congress and the executive branch to remember, but that doesn’t make any of us less American. Remember, America is not simply a country, it is a continent, perhaps even two continents, though, I am not sure if South Americans embrace their continental identity in ways that many American citizens do.
When parishioners of Our Lady celebrate Fiesta Mexicana, they are celebrating their faith and their ethnic heritage, while most of them retain and embrace their American citizenship.
Similarly, if we travel down I-70 to see the Czech capital of Wilson or venture out to Lindsborg to experience Swedish culture, are those celebrations and experiences unAmerican? Going to see the gorgeous St. Fidelis Cathedral in Victoria is an experience I would highly recommend. The church is no less impressive because it was built by Volga German immigrants.
When I have previously taught courses on the American people at the University of Kansas, I quizzed my students, many of them Kansans about the ethnic legacy of Kansas. Most of them were quite surprised. Many of these students claimed to have no ethnic diversity, they were simply Americans.
If our president had been a better student of history, he would realize that even his German and Russian ancestors were once considered to be dubious Americans, too. After World War I, many German Americans faced prejudice and discrimination. I am told, though I am not sure if the veracity of the story, that my surname Shump used to be Schump (rhymes with oomp). According to the story, the name was changed to make it sound less German and more American. Martin Scorcese’s "Gangs of New York" shows the prejudice and violence committed against Irish immigrants by those who referred to themselves as “Native Americans.”
What individuals like President Trump fail to understand is that culture is not static and never has been. The same Irish immigrants derided for their country of origin in the 19th century would not believe how the Irish are now celebrated on St. Patrick’s Day. We celebrate Cinco de Mayo and Chinese New Year and other ethnic holidays without being any less American for doing so.
When JFK ran for president in the1960s, many were skeptical of Kennedy because he was Roman Catholic and some worried about the possibility of the Pope in the Vatican controlling Kennedy. These observations are not meant to excuse the racist and xenophobic nature of President Trump’s tweet, but to attempt to demonstrate that successful cultures and nations evolve and immigrants are an important, if not necessary, element of this evolutionary process.
I have black hair and brown eyes, with a slightly tan complexion and most people do not automatically guess I am Mexican-American on my mother’s side. Occasionally, when I worked retail, I would get asked “Where are you from?” I knew what they were meaning to ask, but I would play dumb and respond “Topeka.”
“No, where is your family from?”
This conversation would continue for a few minutes until they either quit asking or become more transparent and asked if I was Italian, Native American or Mexican. Like President Trump, they could not understand that the question was irrelevant. I am here now.
Like those congresswomen, I am an Amercan citizen and part of being an American citizen is to be vigilant and vocal about my country and its political future. As American citizens, we are more than the sum of our parts, as embodied in the concise, but powerful phrase “E Pluribus Unum.”
Nicolas Shump is a longtime educator in northeast Kansas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.